From Motown to 8 Mile via Iggy Pop and MC5, we trace Detroit’s storied musical heritage
By Alex James Taylor | Music | 21 April 2016
Photography Leni Sinclair

Iggy Pop at Grande ’68 photographed by Leni Sinclair

HERO 14 DETROIT RISING was our 360 survey of the US city. From its politics to its agenda-setting cultural epochs, we explored Motor City’s past, present and future. In light of Iggy Pop’s 69th birthday – Detroit’s very own ‘runaway son of the nuclear A-bomb’ – we publish Detroit Sound, our sonic retrospective taken from HERO 14.

In late 19th Century Detroit, Michigan’s iconic Washington Boulevard was electrified by Thomas Edison’s galvanizing discovery; streetlights lined the roads, resonating with the glow of forward-thinking optimism.

Fast-forward around 150 years later and the thoroughfares of post-bankruptcy Detroit are perhaps not quite as revered as they once were. However the streets still buzz with electricity, a glow still illuminates from the crisp air via a zealous determination that is no better evidenced than within the city’s burgeoning music scene. That driving hum is incessant, the wattage ever increasing.

The city has always been an eclectic cultural melting pot and this is reflected clearly in its ever evolving, storied music scene, through ups and downs, one thing has stayed consistent: Detroit has always been a catalyst for musical innovation and genres that ripple profound effects on the history and industry of American music.

Marvin Gaye, 1976 photographed by Leni Sinclair


In the 1920s, Detroit developed faster than most other US cities – hence the nickname Dynamic Detroit – due to the rising production of the auto industry, which created a large demand for recreation. In Motor City jobs were aplenty, alcohol flowed freely, and all to the rhythm of hot jazz, America’s theme music. Jazz swept upstream towards Detroit via New Orleans (by means of a second wave of black immigration in Detroit to escape Jim Crow laws in the South and seek employment) and was swiftly embraced as the vibrant soundtrack to the bright optimism felt throughout the city. Detroit’s early jazz scene of William McKinney and Jean Goldkette caught the attention of national names such as the legendary cornetist Bix Beiderbecke, informing the sound of the Big Band era in the 1930s, and the touch paper was lit for Detroit’s global musical influence.

A diverse soundscape has always defined Detroit’s aesthetic, and nowhere is this more evident than in the birth of the Motown Sound, a seminal musical era spawned from the hip nexus of jazz, blues and gospel music. On January 12th, 1959, with an $800 loan from his family in his pocket, Detroit-born auto plant worker Berry Gordy founded Tamla Records, and later Motown Records, forever shifting the city’s destiny. Gordy and his label would come to define the Detroit sound, becoming home to some of the most popular recording acts in the world, including Marvin Gaye, The Temptations, Stevie Wonder, Diana Ross & The Supremes, Smokey Robinson & The Miracles, The Four Tops and Martha Reeves & the Vandellas.

Musical revolutions come no greater than the impact Motown had on Detroit, both industrially and culturally. Motown music – ‘the sound of young America’, as their motto boasted – begot from 2658 W. Grand Blvd, dubbed Hitsville USA by Gordy, and took the music world by storm, ruling the charts for decades. Heard It Through The Grapevine, Ain’t Too Proud to Beg, Let’s Get It On, Ain’t No Mountain High Enough. Hit followed hit, this was a Detroit assembly line like no other. Taking influence from Detroit’s jazz and soul scene, Gordy converted budding potential into lucrative gems, forming the blueprint for decades of pop music since.

MC5 in Mt Clemens, 1969 photographed by Leni Sinclair


In 1972 Motown relocated to the West Coast, but Detroit wasn’t ready to stand still. Invention is hardwired to the city’s soul, and at the same time that Motown was steadily emigrating a new musical era was already fizzing, and the growl of guitar feedback was rumbling. During the period of 1965 to ’66 – after American beat bands started smoking weed, but before they started dropping acid – there was a shift in the musical sphere. The positivity of the early 60s was beginning to darken, shaped by distressing cultural turning points such as the progression of the Vietnam War, the assassination of Malcolm X and turbulent race relations throughout the States. Whilst on America’s West Coast 1967’s ‘Summer of Love’ was in full swing and flowers lined the streets, in Detroit plants were left crushed by a stampede of rioters following a police after-hours raid at the Blind Pig bar, preceding five days of riots, the worst in Detroit’s history. The days of people dancing in the streets, to paraphrase a great Tamla-Motown artist, were well and truly over. 55 people died in those five days, race relations grew fractured and Detroit’s optimism was frayed from that moment onwards, as MC5’s Wayne Kramer used to say “The Summer of Love never made it to Detroit.”

It was this same year that Bob Dylan released his politically charged Highway 61, and The Who felt the need to re-address their generation, from this historical marker a new angst-ridden energy that reflected the zeitgeist of the time would birth a new breed of music, one that altered the format indefinitely.

Just as with Motown, Detroit was at the genesis of this burgeoning movement. As the city transformed under social and political unrest, so did the music emanating from its core. As a seedbed of working-class activism and a centre of American industry, it was well equipped to ignite an explosion of virile rock bands. The industrial thump of machinery that cast the rhythmic beat of the city filtered into the pulsating thrash of punk rock, a phenomenon like no other. This new sound spread like wildfire, scorching clear the musical landscape.

Protopunk – a small scene that preceded the punk movement – was spawned in Detroit, having emerged from the city’s dive bars and underground venues, such as Bookies Club 870, Detroit’s answer to New York’s CBGB’s and Max’s Kansas City. This nascent genre was epitomised most by two Detroit bands, MC5 (short for Motor City 5) and The Stooges, both groups represented a pioneering iteration of rock music, a full throttle adrenaline shot plunged into the heart of a stagnant mainstream rock scene.

“Being in bands in 60s Detroit was the best training any up and coming musician could have,” explains Detroit born musician Suzi Quatro. “You had Motown as the ‘bar’, you had excellent rock groups, and we all had this energy, this desperation, this need to do something. All of the musicians from this city have one thing in common, we put our foot on the gas and we go!” As one of the first female frontwomen in rock Quatro paved the way for future icons such as Joan Jett, Chrissie Hynde and Siouxsie Sioux.

Following the 1967 riots Detroit was calling out for a source of solidarity and punk seemed to answer that cry. Through music came unity, white and black adolescent rockers alike ventured to the auto show or the drag strip to discover new bands, solidifying a cultural relationship. Along with their enduring musical influence, it is MC5 and The Stooges’ appropriation of diverse racial– and class–based stereotypes that made them the innovative, counter-cultural artists they are known as. John Sinclair, MC5’s manager was a passionate left-winger who founded the White Panther Party, a far-left, anti- racism collective. Established in response to an interview where Huey P. Newton, co-founder of the Black Panther Party – a socialist organisation formed against police brutality against black citizens – was asked what white people could do to support the Black Panthers and replied that they could form a White Panther Party. And so, in an attempt to unify ethnic groups, Sinclair did just that.

Death, a punk trio consisting of three black siblings, aptly represented this newly articulated race unification in Detroit’s music. Through their open, politically active music the Hackney brother’s rhetoric presented the fears, anxieties, and doubts of their community, in parallel to Motown’s political artists like soul singer Marvin Gaye, whose 1971 hit What’s Goin’ On? preceded Death’s own anti-war stance, after all Detroit’s music scene has always been as much about breaking ground as making hits.

iggy in Ann Arbor photographed by Leni Sinclair

In 1971 music critic legend Lester Bangs hailed Detroit’s musical influence, calling the city “rock’s only hope” having moved there to take the reigns as Editor of Creem magazine, the irreverent and sardonic rock music bible founded in Detroit by Barry Kramer. The DIY ethos employed by these new bands spread throughout creative mediums. As the self-assigned voice of ‘punk’, a term coined within the magazine’s pages by critic Dave Marsh, Creem represented a brave new world of independent zine publishing. “It was my kind of dysfunctional place,” explains Jaan Uhelszki, Senior Editor of Creem during the 70s. “They used to run an ad that said, “Do It.

This is just to say we want you! That should’ve been obvious all along, of course, but just in case it isn’t here’s the deal: NOBODY WHO WRITES FOR THIS RAG’S GOT ANYTHING YOU AINT GOT, at least in the way of credentials. There’s no reason why you shouldn’t be sending us your stuff… Sure, we don’t pay much, but then who else do ya know who’ll publish you? We really will, ask any of our dozens of satisfied customers. Whaddya got to lose? Whaddya got?”

Detroit’s Grande Ballroom proved a hotbed for this rising movement. Working as a cola girl there during the 70s,Uhelszki saw it all first hand. “It was where the Who rehearsed and debuted Tommy, where the then-called Psychedelic Stooges played their second public gig, in their space angel phase, where Iggy Pop performed in a long white christening robe, wearing a chrome headdress constructed from iron and starched strips of Reynolds Wrap,” Uhelszki enthuses. “It was where the MC5’s recorded their debut album Kick Out the Jams, and dropped the MF bomb that was heard around the world, and where a young, and oddly shy, Rod Stewart hid behind the amps as the singer of the Jeff Beck Band. And that’s just the tip of that proverbial iceberg.”

crowd at the Grande ca 1968 iggy photographed by Leni Sinclair


This electric surge in guitar-led music continued in the city. During the 1980s and 1990s Detroit became a hotbed for an emerging revival garage sound, billowing the flame that the punk bands first set alight two decades earlier.

Groups such as The Gories, The Dirtbombs, The Von Bondies, The Rockets and Demolition Doll Rods all broke into the mix during this wave, merging punk’s fury with the melodious rhythms of garage. “The scene was great in 1985 when I was first coming up,” says Danny Kroha, aka Danny Doll Rod, frontman for The Gories and later Demolition Doll Rods. “We had some great bands that I would go see all the time, The Hysteric Narcotics, who played great Pebbles-style garage, The Vertical Pillows, a really tough all girl rock band, and Zombie Surfers, a sick masked surf band who played the shit out of some killer surf music years before it became a trend.” A new era Iggy Pop, Kroha was a wide-eyed poster boy of androgynous nihilism, usually found simply clad in bikini bottoms and cowboy boots.

Bastille Day, 1997, The White Stripes formed, ex husband and wife (not brother and sister, as they have always claimed) Jack and Meg White, a duo who later became universally synonymous with this fledging movement. They first met at Memphis Smoke, a restaurant in Royal Oak, where Meg worked as a waitress and Jack would recite his poetry at open mic nights. The sound that evolved from the pair’s instant bond would reverberate around the globe, Jack White’s screaming mangled guitar and Meg’s howitzer-fire drums brought garage kicking and screaming into the present day.

Their hometown informed their sound immensely, and they wore their love for Detroit on their sleeve, and within their lyrics. Take The Big Three Killed My Baby, a track from their 1999 eponymous record in which Jack directs his rage towards the giant car companies – General Motors, Ford and Chrysler – who put the duo’s Detroit birthplace on the manufacturing map, but then abandoned the city when times got hard. “Their ideas made me want to spit/a hundred dollars goes down the pit/30,000 wheels are rollin’/and my stick shift hands are swollen,” White rages, before declaring, “and I found out my baby is dead.”

Today White uses his name to help Detroit, post-bankruptcy. At the time of writing his independent label Third Man Records is putting the final touches on a new retail and office space in the city, in partnership with local leather goods brand Shinola, set to open in November this year.

Alice Cooper in Ann Arbor 1973 photographed by Leni Sinclair


With the garage revival turning global, a third wave generation was now forming, ready to lead Detroit to a 4/4 utopia.

A sense of disillusion spread through Detroit’s youth due to a sudden spate of gentrification in Downtown, the closure of many social outlets, and a seeming lack of interest towards the current citizens from above. High school kids from cross the city took things into their own hands, filling this void with organised parties where they would hire DJs, lighting equipment and speakers. These ‘party clubs’ would define the city’s formative techno scene, enticing DJs and MCs towards Detroit and shaping a youthquake born out of empowerment and liberation.

Radio DJs The Electrifying Mojo and DJ Wizard were in the crowd for one of these nights baring witness to a new phase of musical freedom, in a stateside replica of that iconic 1967 Sex Pistols show at Manchester’s Lesser Free Trade Hall – the gig many (falsely) claim to have attended that sparked the UK punk movement. The energy exuded by both the music and the crowd sparked the interest of these two DJs, by incorporating the sound into their radio shows and live sets they then spread the scene to a wider audience. Three high school friends from Belleville, Michigan, Juan Atkins, Kevin Saunderson and Derrick May later to be labelled the ‘Belleville Three’ were tuned in.

Unafraid of the future, these renegades of electronic music heeded Detroit act Funkadelic’s rally call “free your mind and your ass will follow” and sought to challenge musical convention, not content to compromise their musical freedom.

Following the split of Cybotro, Atkins’ project with techno producer Rick Davies, the Detroit musician began recording as Model 500 on his own label Metroplex and set out the blueprint for Techno (a label he gave the genre himself during a magazine interview) and with that the blueprint for techno’s global takeover was set. Through a cool melange of futurism beats and murky vocals, singles like No U.F.O.s and Techno Music defined this new sound, and Atkins’ ’80s visions turned into a global pandemic.

Like the punk scene that came before, this nascent techno sound evolved from the industrial backdrop Detroit provided. As smoke billowed from the manhole covers, the vacant warehouses left behind by the fleeing manufacturers became dance music havens attracting the masses, communing beneath one united soundtrack.

Detroit’s techno scene thrives on a different level, whilst names like Metroplex and second generation producers like Carl Craig and Jeff Mills are now bywords for an electronic sound that has hijacked dancefloors across the world, the city’s annual Electronic Dance Festival, Movement, draws thousands to Detroit’s riverfront each year.

MC5 @ Grande 1968 photographed by Leni Sinclair


Between 1950 and 1980 Detroit underwent a dramatic population shift known as ‘white flight’, the changes hat remapped Detroit during that period were stunning. Between 1970 and 1990 the city’s

black or Afro American population rose from 43.7 percent to 75.7 percent, on a swift trajectory. The majority of the white population who still lived in Detroit lived in the more affluent suburbs.

It was during these two decades that Detroit’s financial issues progressed, leaving the city exposed to the social costs of economic frailties – poverty, broken families and crime. Crime became a mainstay concern on the streets of Detroit, so much so that in his 1974 inaugural speech Coleman A. Young, Detroit’s first black mayor, addressed the problem with force. “I issue an open warning to all dope pushers, to all rip-off artists, to all muggers. It is time to leave Detroit,” the newly elected Young warned. “Hit 8 Mile Road. And I don’t give a damn if they are black or white, if they wear Superfly suits or blue uniforms with silver badges. Hit the road.”

It was this stretch of road, Eight Mile – separating the impecunious urban Detroit and the more affluent suburbs – that was forever canonised in musical history by a young white boy called Marshall Bruce Mathers III, or Eminem, as he is now known. Eminem grew up around the black youth culture that enveloped the urban boroughs he was raised, it was here that he was first introduced to hip hop, Detroit style.

The relatively passive aesthetic of early 1970s hip hop – that saw MCs influenced by funk, such as Grandmaster Flash and The Sugarhill Gang – seemed to pass Detroit by as the hard-edged city turned to techno futurism for their score. When hip hop resurfaced in the late ‘80s, the Billie Jean disco floor pavements and the call to party-hearty had been replaced by post Public Enemy black consciousness and post N.W.A social angst. This image was a ready- made template for Detroit’s disillusioned youth to identify with, true urban music concrete.

In parallel to the techno scene that rose from the ashes of funk and disco, Detroit’s hip hop culture followed a similar bearing – techno legends DJ Mojo and DJ Wizard also had a profound effect on Detroit’s fledging hip hop culture. They were quintessential to bringing early hip hop records and DJ styles budding in New York to a mass audience in Detroit, giving rise to a new musical generation, as expressed by Eminem in his track Groundhog Day, “discovered this DJ who was mixing/I say it to this day/if you ain’t listened to The Wizard/you ain’t have a fucking clue what you was missing.”

By 1990 hip hop had become the beat of the city’s soul. It was this year that rap group Detroit’s Most Wanted – led by 1960’s soul-singer Jackie Wilson’s grandson Motsi Ski – burst on to the scene with Tricks of the Trade and ghettotech DJs, scratching records speeding by at 150 beats per minute, took the underground scene by storm, placing Detroit rap on the map and opening doors for the city’s next generation.

One man who embodied this fledgling scene was rapper and producer J Dilla, born in Detroit’s Eastside to a former opera singer mother and jazz bassist father, a diverse musical rhetoric permeated his DNA. From beat battling at friends’ homes to raising the artistic level of beat-making during his stints in the groups 1st Down and Slum Village, to his revolutionary production for the likes of A Tribe Called Quest, Erykah Badu, and Common, Dilla defined Detroit’s hip hop sound waves. Having passed away in 2006 his legacy endures today, reverenced through DJs like House Shoes, producers like Black Milk, and rappers like Danny Brown and Supakaine.

From the mid-1990s production of J Dilla to the mid-2000s with the world-conquering success of Eminem and rise of a new guard fronted by the likes of ZelooperZ and Supakaine, Detroit’s hip hop landscape continues to innovate on a grand scale.


Today, Detroit is enjoying a new rising but it’s only through this new generation’s future-gazed creativity that it’s taking shape as such a transfixing movement. Musical change and movements are no longer confined to singular municipal influences. The millennial generation reviving Detroit’s downtown and midtown neighborhoods thrive on an awareness of that revivalist ethos, fused with a determination to innovate and create new, that pushes these kids to transcend their influences, becoming a force in their own right.

Owing to the city’s financial difficulties many buildings stand vacant, proving ideal spaces for an emerging music community to inhabit and utilise as recording and practice rooms, encouraging a new wave to assume the iconic mantle. Through the city’s hardships a tight community has formed, growing as they merge genres, unifying under a united artistic passion. There’s a pulse in the city’s machinery that propels a constant determination and creativity, a driving force that beats, ceaselessly.

Original text taken from HERO 14 DETROIT RISING

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